2nd New Zealand Divisional Artillery
FOR the New Zealand Division the CRUSADER offensive started slowly. The night march on the 17th-18th became more and more confused as it progressed, many lorries sank up to their axles in sand, and Lieutenant-Colonel Weir described it as the ‘most difficult, dangerous and hair-raising night march in its [the 6th Field's] history’. He went on to say that the lights that marked the route led ‘over escarpments and other obstacles’ and the journey became ‘a scramble’. His efforts to collect his regiment together were ‘hopeless’. The night sky was ominously lit with brilliant flashes, caused as it happened not by gun fire, but by a vivid electrical storm. No rain fell in the divisional area, south of the enemy's frontier line; but many places along the coast suffered a deluge and were flooded. Vehicles opened out just before dawn to ‘daylight laager’ formation—widely dispersed—and most men had little to do until late afternoon. Freyberg told his brigadiers what was happening elsewhere this day: 30 Corps was crossing the frontier and wheeling majestically towards Tobruk with three armoured brigades fanning out as they advanced.
Headquarters of the 7th Anti-Tank and 14th Light Ack-Ack, two troops of 34 Anti-Tank Battery, and the Survey Troop came under command of Divisional Headquarters. The guns of the 4th Field were widely dispersed in extended troop positions along the northern flank and north-western corner of the 4 Brigade laager, guarding against attack from the Omar forts. Troop commanders were pleased to discover that their new loudspeaker system of control worked well and by means of it orders could be passed clearly over quite long distances. Major Hall-Kenney1 of 34 Anti-Tank Battery, with his headquarters and P and N Troops, located Divisional Cavalry in the afternoon and came under its command. P Troop and half of N crossed the frontier wire with C Squadron in the late afternoon and thus became the first of the Divisional Artillery to enter Libya in this campaign.2page 186
Units such as the 7th Anti-Tank and 14th Light Ack-Ack, with their batteries dispersed throughout the Division, had little for their headquarters to do under such circumstances and their COs were apt to be given ad hoc commands or special duties. Thus Lieutenant-Colonel Oakes took command of Divisional B Group, the administrative part of Divisional Headquarters Group.
The night march took 5 Brigade, then 4 Brigade and finally 6 Brigade through the Wire and into Libya. It was a cold night, but the going was considerably better than that of the previous night and the only major trouble was caused by faulty navigation in 4 Brigade, which caused a long detour and had the quads of the 4th Field racing along with 25-pounders bouncing wildly behind in an effort to keep pace. Lieutenant-Colonel Duff realised that there was no hope of achieving order within the brigade group until morning and therefore drew his headquarters and B Echelons away from the rest of the brigade to keep them intact until dawn. The total distance travelled varied from 20 to 30 miles and most gunners, after digging shallow slit trenches, had time for several hours' sleep.
Waking in Libya was not the same as waking in Egypt; it was enemy territory and gunners looked around as if to find proof of this. Their eyes told them nothing: the desert looked much the same. But a faint rumble of shellfire came from the north. Except for the Administration Group, still east of the Wire, the Division was just across the frontier and some 20 miles from the Omar forts. Infantry units laid out their defences, the guns moved to support them, and brigade layouts were inspected. Brigadier Miles found 4 Brigade well sited and ‘from an artillery point of view … excellent’; but there was a wide gap between two 5 Brigade battalions. A few of the latest-type Messerschmitt fighters, much superior in performance to any RAF aircraft in the desert, machine-gunned part of Corps Headquarters a few miles to the rear and then flew over the divisional area, where they were quickly engaged by 42 Battery (which claimed to have damaged one of them). These were the first NZA shots of the campaign.
Conflicting news of the armoured battle caused some hesitation, but in mid-afternoon the Division drove rapidly northwards over smooth desert for a distance of about 12 miles. A rumble of shellfire ahead was not enough to cause concern. At dusk the Division settled down between the Indians ‘masking’ the Omar forts and a British armoured brigade which, unbe- page 187 known to the New Zealanders, had fought a furious action in the afternoon. A powerful German battle group was only a dozen miles to the north-west. Shelling could be seen to the north-east and enemy flares rose up after dark in several directions. There seemed nothing ominous about the situation, however, most gunners were highly optimistic, and they slept well.
The 20th dawned brightly and good news soon came in. Some 45 Italian tanks had been destroyed and the German armour had taken a hard knock. Freyberg heard that the armoured brigade was fighting some 180 tanks five miles to the north and, confident that it would do well, prepared to move. He saw Miles and decided to send a 25-pounder troop to support the Divisional Cavalry which would lead the advance. This regiment, with its two attached anti-tank troops, had spent a noisy night alongside the armoured brigade. B Troop of the 4th Field under Captain Moodie3 joined it at noon and got ready to engage the enemy; but no targets were found.
Some uncertainty crept in when it seemed that the German armour might manage to concentrate against the nearby armoured brigade—the 4th—and Freyberg hastened to assure Corps that the brigade could rally, if hard pressed, alongside the Division. He was not at all nervous. Colonel Oakes nevertheless felt some anxiety about the anti-tank defence of Divisional Headquarters Group and redisposed his anti-tank and Vickers guns to cover what now seemed to be the threatened flank. Miles's staff was suspicious of a visitor and was pleased to confirm that he was what he claimed to be: an American official observer.
The morning of the 21st was cold and after breakfast men began to throw or kick footballs about to get warm. The sound of guns to the north and in the direction of the Omars and the many RAF sorties passing overhead were the chief signs of battle. The news which came in was most encouraging and Freyberg, with every encouragement from General Godwin-Austen, prepared to move at once.